It doesn’t match our popular conception of what poverty is, or what suburbs are; the key takeaway is that landscape of poverty has changed, but our perceptions and policies haven’t kept up. —Elizabeth Kneebone
HOUSTON — Parts of downtown Houston have changed dramatically in the last decade — humble, single-family homes have been replaced by chic downtown lofts and three-story townhomes.
Shabby retail strips have given way to shiny new shopping districts with upscale eateries and stores. “It’s a yuppie downtown crowd they are attracting — there’s Crate and Barrel, there’s Marble Slab,” says Elizabeth Ferrer, referring to the gourmet ice cream chain. “Once Marble Slab goes in, you know the neighborhood has changed."
Ferrer worked at Small Steps Nurturing Center, a nonprofit preschool that offers preschool education to at-risk kids in inner-city Houston. At one time the Small Steps location in Houston’s First Ward was walking distance for many of its families, but as gentrification has moved in, low-income families have moved out in search of cheaper rents.
Houston’s suburban poor population has more than doubled in the last 10 years, reflecting a national trend. Poverty in America is usually thought of as an inner-city problem, but that has rapidly changed.
"The ratio of low-income families shifted dramatically in the 2000s," says Elizabeth Kneebone, fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings and co-author of the recent book, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.” In the last 10 years, the poor population in suburbs across America ballooned to 64 percent, versus 29 percent in cities according to the Brookings Institute. Suburbia is now home to most of the nation’s poor.
The surging growth makes fighting the problem tricky, especially because anti-poverty programs are geared toward urban populations — assistance programs target high-density city poverty, often neglecting suburban poor. Still, some communities are finding smart ways to help.
The changing face of poverty
American poverty has long been associated with inner city and rural locations, while the suburbs evoke the country club and shopping mall enclaves of the affluent.
“It doesn’t match our popular conception of what poverty is, or what suburbs are; the key takeaway is that landscape of poverty has changed, but our perceptions and policies haven’t kept up,” says Kneebone.
Two things, according to Kneebone: Gentrification and other factors pushing low-income families toward the suburbs, and families living in the suburbs becoming poor over time — some of them newly poor from the recession. In 2013, the poverty line for a family of four was an annual income of $23,550, according to the federal poverty guidelines.
“A lot of suburban families are only one crisis away from financial distress,” says Claudia Vasquez, Senior Vice President and Chief Program Director for Neighborhood Center of Houston, a nonprofit that serves low-income residents. “Someone gets sick and they can’t pay medical bills, and then they are in danger of losing their house — it’s a tumbling effect.”
Starting at square one
Houston has a vast suburban area, and displacement from natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Irene has changed the region economically. By 2011, 540,000 poor people lived in Houston’s suburbs.
Houston’s Neighborhood Centers is a social service nonprofit that serves 400,000 low-income residents a year including many suburban low-income families, and it has garnered attention for its unusual practices.
“Everything begins with the question: ‘What do you want — what do you have to offer?’ Rather than, ‘What is your deficit?’ ” says Claudia Vasquez, senior vice president and program director at Neighborhood Center.
It’s called an asset-based approach, and the philosophy seeks to build up the community based on members’ strengths. Other agencies and programs too often focus on what people don't have, she says, “Usually it’s, 'Tell me how screwed up you are, and then maybe you’ll qualify and we’ll give you this.' "
Neighborhood Centers take a novel approach of placing residents in classes that build on their skills — whether it's baking cupcakes or cosmetology.
Neighborhood Centers' three goals are: getting people engaged in the community — through volunteering or taking classes at Neighborhood Center — getting them educated, and getting them financially stable. “But you can’t take a stay-at-home mom from Honduras and force her into a community college right away,” says Vasquez. “If she has three kids, her husband has two jobs, and she needs to make money, she might say she likes crafting — so she enters a crafting class.”
Crafting might not sound like a solution to poverty, but Neighborhood Centers has had nine new businesses come from just one of their locations. “People smirk and say, ‘You’re teaching kite making?’ We have someone making $90,000 with a kite-making business now,” she says. A recent survey of 12,000 members showed that 87 percent wanted to own a business.
Getting the basics
Like many Midwestern communities, like Lakewood, Ohio, used to have a strong manufacturing economy. Globalization and the technology have dried up most of those jobs, and unemployment is exacerbated by the recession.
Four local churches started North Coast Health Ministry in 1986 when community members found themselves without health benefits, and the community “saw people falling through the cracks,” says Assistant Executive Director Jeanine Gergel. It began as a volunteer service where local health care providers would offer free-of-cost appointments in their offices, but has since grown into its own clinic that offers free visits seven days a week to 2,500 patients.
Christine Shearheart was laid off in June 2010 and now relies on North Coast for health care. “I couldn’t afford it on unemployment,” she says. “There are many in my position who are without any health care whatsoever, but aren’t old enough to be on Medicare.”
Another concern for suburban families is preschool, but those areas are short on public transportation and many low-income families share cars. Small Steps Nurturing Center in Houston, a Christian organization providing free early childhood education to low-income families, got around this problem by providing bus service to its far-flung clients.
“We couldn’t get to them, and they couldn’t get to us,” says Ana Schick. Their answer to gentrification pushing their population away was to provide transportation themselves, and they now bus almost half of their kids to their First Ward campus. “We have had people tell us they would not be able to get here if we didn’t,” says Schick.
Ultimately, there are going to be struggling members of society, says Vasquez, whether they shift to the suburbs or elsewhere. “This idea of the ‘War on Poverty’; poverty is not something that’s going to disappear, and the thought that we won’t have folks in need is irresponsible. What is responsible is to have systems, to be ready to help each other,” she says.